The Enormous Emotional Toll of Trumpism
Every day it’s something. Or 10 somethings. Can we really live with three more years of this, let alone seven?
At a certain point, the distaste becomes exhaustion. Donald Trump’s presence in our national life has been alternately infuriating, embarrassing, revolting, gross and bizarre. His non-stop assaults on our political norms are testing our capacity to sustain constant outrage without giving in to despair.
I meet victims of Trump fatigue everywhere. They stop me in airports and restaurants and on the street and ask how long we’ll have to put up with this madness – when will Bob Mueller finally bring him down, and how much more can our systems bend before they break. When I tell them Trump is likely to clamor on until either the 2018 election slows him down or the 2020 election stops him (or if Russian interference, non-white voter suppression and liberal perfectionism succeed again, ‘til he terms out in 2024), the look on their faces is something akin to terror.
For many Americans – many humans – Trump’s presidency can often feel unbearable.
Try as you might to put him out of your mind, he blunders back into your consciousness. He lumbers across your television and cellphone screens in his giant Trump suits, squinting and pouting with his silent, sullen wife or exhausted looking cabinet members in tow. One minute he’s tearing up international agreements. The next, he’s tweeting out his inner demons, mocking people of color, taunting unstable dictators with stupid nicknames and generally wreaking havoc. The Trump Show is the reality TV train wreck you can’t turn off, no matter how badly you want to. No sooner does he ruin one thing (so much for empathetic hurricane response being Presidenting 101) than he’s on to the next one (stay tuned to find out what our “tease to commercial break” president means by “the calm before the storm!”)
Even his cabinet seems to be succumbing to Trump exhaustion. Rex Tillerson, his miserable secretary of state, is said to slouch and grimace in Trump’s presence. He fails to return White House phone calls. And he apparently told associates at the Pentagon that Trump is a “fucking moron.” It’s tough to sympathize with Tillerson, the oil mogul and Putin pal currently decimating the half-empty State Department. But it’s not hard to relate to his sense of ennui. Trump’s presidency is enervating. Every day is a new game of Russian-aided roulette. We careen from hour to hour, wondering if he’ll blow up our healthcare system, our access to birth control, our tentative peace with Iran, our European alliances or literally us, via nuclear war with North Korea.
Recently I asked a cross-section of politically active observers to describe the constant barrage of Trump news and its impact on their psyches. They offered adjectives that descended from bad to worse.
“Exhausting,” said one lifelong Republican, adding that they are “sick of it.”
“Nervous daily,” is how a GOP strategist who is mostly supportive of Trump’s policies, but troubled by his rhetoric, tweets and divisiveness, described himself.
A third Republican – younger, white and reliably conservative - who remains active in the party despite a strong distaste for Trump described himself as “saddened … because this is the decline of the U.S.”
“It’s exhauuuusting,” said one young Republican – a Millennial woman struggling to reconcile her place in a Trumpian party. “It’s a very strong feeling of, ‘Oh no, not again. … Why can’t he calm down and be a decent person, JUST ONCE?”
A Navy veteran recounted a conversation with fellow tourists from Chicago while traveling in Europe. “Oh, we hate hearing his name when [we’re] here,” they’d said. “It makes us sick.”
It’s “embarrassing and depressing that his idiocy is literally risking my family’s life,” the veteran said.
“Trump’s divisive rhetoric is in direct competition with his incompetence,” said Naveed Jamali, a former double agent against Russia who occasionally advises Democrats on national security matters. “It’s both embarrassing and depressing.”
An anti-poverty activist from a Midwestern enclave described herself as alternately “angry, on high alert – adrenaline always running – and helpless” in the face of Trump’s constant attacks on vulnerable communities.
Asked to describe in a single word how Trump makes him feel, one longtime Republican active in the party, including as a donor, offered: “petrified.”
“Disgust,” said a Democratic operative who worked on the 2008 Obama campaign.
An African-American police detective in a Southern state Trump won in November called the nation’s 45th president “sick and demented.”
“That’s the only way I can describe him,” the robbery-homicide officer said of Trump, offering a view not likely to be popular among his colleagues. “He has single-handedly placed this country on a downward slide.”
On the day news emerged that Trump’s administration would end the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate, a black Millennial woman active in Democratic politics said she feels “rage.”
“Every day it’s a new and fresh hell.”
Her colleague, a white woman active in feminist politics, added that her feelings include anger as well but “sometimes shame,” too, given that a majority of white women voted for Trump last November.
Apparently, most Americans agree with these grim assessments. Trump’s approval rating fell to a record low of 32 percent in a new AP poll, though opinions about Trump remain deeply polarized by political party, and especially by race.
One black progressive activist said she careens from feeling “enraged” to “worried – for young people of color in this country, like my kid,” to “fearless” and ready to fight.
There’s “this awful feeling of ‘flashback’ to a time when black people could not vote or sit in the front of the bus … that second, third class citizen feeling that he proudly verbalizes whenever he can,” the activist said. “Black people have always had to be vigilant living in America. Trump took it one step further. Now I feel like I’m constantly living in a state of trauma.”
Bishop William Barber, who has become one of the nation’s most prominent voices of opposition to Trump and his party’s ultra-conservative policies, said the people he encounters in the country as he travels across the country are angry but also “inspired to fight back.”
“People are getting tired, but it's a Fannie Lou Hamer kind of ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired,’” Barber said. “They are tired of people saying a person who lost an election by 3 million votes is called the winner. They are tired of the attacks on voting rights, tired of the attacks in healthcare and the poor and living wages; tired of the policies and practices of white supremacy and tired of the hypocrisy of politicians who claim they are offended by Trump’s style, but [when it comes to] substance and policy, [despite the] extremism and racism they vote with him and have the same agenda.”
“The feeling is unprecedented,” added Mark Thompson, who hosts a progressive talk show on Sirius XM and who doubles as a civil rights activist and political analyst. “I’ve never felt so baffled. No one else personally or historically has been rewarded for such bad behavior, and bizarre behavior. And as a political analyst, how does one analyze paper towel jump shots?” referring to Trump tossing rolls of paper towels at Puerto Ricans during a visit there last week.
Thompson said his radio listeners “are not only equally baffled, they feel generally betrayed … betrayed by a ‘democracy’ that would enable the second-place vote getter to occupy the White House, that would critique a woman’s benign behavior more than a man’s malignant behavior and that would be susceptible to manipulation of the public discourse by Russian state actors.”
Dr. Jeffrey R. Gardere, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, said some of his patients over the past nine months “have expressed much frustration, unhappiness and stress with the present political climate,” and that he is seeing increased instances of “dysphoria, and sometimes the related eating and sleeping interruptions.”
“In some ways they feel that the unorthodox practices and behaviors of this president appear to be crisis or conflict driven,” Gardere said. “The way these patients perceive the messages from this White House place them in a state of emotional arousal, resulting in a ‘flight or fight’ physiological state, resulting in a release into their systems of a number of hormones including norepinephrine and epinephrine (excitatory hormones) and cortisol (steroid hormone), to name a few.”
He added: “What we do know is that though this physiological state gives us the strength or energy to get through an occasional crisis, emergency or danger, chronic exposure to these hormones through being in the ‘fight or flight’ state over a long period of time can eventually result in fatigue to the body, mind and spirit. This may explain why some people are feeling worn out, tired, exhausted or even numb as a result of this political environment.”
And yet, Trump’s hardcore supporters remain blissfully serene. The level of alarm expressed by their fellow Americans is met with shrugs.
“The word that best expresses my innermost feelings about Trump is ‘confident,’” said one such Trump supporter, a financial manager and conservative Christian. “He makes me feel confident that America is somehow going to recover itself and again be the force for good in the Earth that I believe was intended by the Almighty when, against all odds, America became an independent nation.”
The Trump supporter praised Trump for “showing the American people that they do not have to be ruled by … the ‘effete snobs’ and the ‘ideological eunuchs and nattering nabobs of negativism’ who seem to have been in charge of America’s identity and direction for many years,” adding that “Trump’s calling is to encourage ‘we the people’ to rise up and show the ruling class who really rules.”
He’s not alone. Republican members of Congress, eager to roll their eyes and complain about Trump to reporters on background, publicly can’t back him eagerly enough.
And therein lies the impasse. Trump is not the president of the United States. He is the unquestioned leader of a minority faction within the United States, and the bane of the majority’s existence. The toll he’s taking on that majority is a toll his supporters are taking as well, leaving millions of Americans feeling as if they’re being held hostage.
It’s not a healthy place to be. And experts on authoritarianism warn that over time it settles on the spirit, fed by exhaustion in hope that fatigue morphs into apathy and finally, acceptance.
Barber says despite the gloom, he doesn’t see that happening now. Not among the people he encounters.
“They are tired,” says Barber, who founded the social justice organization Repairers of the Breach after years of leading the North Carolina NAACP. “But they are also ready to forge a multiracial, moral, anti-racism, anti-poverty, pro-justice pushback, not to save a party, but to save the soul of the nation.”